Speaking Up and Speaking Out, Even When It’s Impolite

And yet it has always struck me as odd how timid most Americans become when asked to object to something, even politely. At the dinner table, I’ve noticed, what Germans call a discussion, Americans call an argument.

I know I am often perceived as harsh because I speak my mind. But I also see how the very thing that makes America great—its people’s quiet acceptance of other beliefs, their overwhelming friendliness, their effort to always get along—now threatens to become its downfall. I loathed having to read my friends’ whiny Facebook posts about how they were dreading Thanksgiving because of the elections. “Boohoo, I have to talk about politics to someone who thinks differently than I do!”

Here, this German said it. Will you still like me? I am asking because I believe what stands in the way is Americans’ compulsive need to be liked. At moments like this, though, we need to learn to object and intervene—whether in public protest or simply around the family dinner table.

Take It From A German: Americans Are Too Timid In Confronting Hate,” Sabine Heinlein, The Daily Beast

I am myself quite timid. It is my strong preference to sit quietly, smiling at people while they show me something new. When I have to initiate a confrontation, my body shakes all over in a way I can not only feel but see. I am sick to my stomach well into the following day. It is much, much worse than stage fright (which I also get), or the feeling of crushing humiliation when I need to interrupt someone who is trying to ignore me. But I do it anyway. I have been to too many Holocaust museums.

Also, when I was a little girl I read C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books. Whatever weak spots they might have, a substantial portion of the bravery I am occasionally able to summon as an adult comes from chapter 12 of The Silver Chair, when the Green Witch plays the mandolin, and it seems much more comfortable to agree the truth is not true and to sit by the incense fire. But no no no be a grouchy mud man and stomp on it!

Akira says: In some ways I’m more vexed by milquetoast “I hate politics” types than by reactionary zealots, because at least the latter in their own skewed ways are engaged with politics and its implications for society, while the former treat it as something to tune out like an annoying song.

Romie: My favorite take so far is this piece of satire, from The Awl: “I Don’t Read The News Anymore, And It’s Great,” by Benjamin Hart.

Akira: I used to feel like kind of a jerk for liking this one; not as much now.

Angela says: Like you said before, I feel like it’s a matter of saving souls. I really, really hate fighting with people, too. I tremble and angst and I find the adrenaline rush more painful than anything. I marvel at people who apparently enjoy it. But apart from the practical matter of active resistance to keep the Trump administration from reveling too much in its “mandate” and giving real support to those more vulnerable than myself, there is the matter of the souls.

Lia says: I’ve been working on being less timid in recent years, but I’m finding it’s so difficult in just how much it contradicts my training to preserve white fragility and male egos and the facade of the happy family at all costs. Looking back, I can see how my nuclear family developed an astonishingly complex web of machinations and manipulations to avoid confrontations, and maintaining that is exhausting.

Florian says: Hm I don’t see standing up to injustice as a particularly German trait. It really depends on the person from wherever they are and if they have the balls to say something. it is easier if you can assume that not everyone has a gun I suppose. It makes me think of that supermarket robbery right around my corner. I know not a hate crime just a regular crime but still one guy tried to stand up to robber but he is now dead.

Romie: There are certainly limits to what we can do as individuals to resist hatred. Guns, as you point out, are real, and most civilians don’t have the ability to compel violent people to stop being violent. Even armed civilians can’t replace law enforcement (and vigilantes are their own set of problems). If it was as simple as “get loud when somebody’s wrong,” there wouldn’t be dictatorships like Syria, and apartheid (a minority oppressing a majority) couldn’t have happened. Power can be asymmetric.

However, I think the main point the writer is making in the essay is that we seem to have trouble intervening even when we’re not physically threatened, where we’re simply worried about being seen as disagreeable, which does have a cultural aspect. America is of course made up of a lot of different subcultures, some of which are more or less agreeability-focused, but a lot of them center the idea that we (and perhaps especially white women) should be pleasant above all things.

I have personally been on the receiving end of opprobium for being “mean” when the mean thing was saying “this is white supremacist propaganda, in a literal and not exaggerated sense: factually it was produced by a white supremacist group who would tell you so themselves.” I was informed that the *real* shame was my rudeness to somebody “nice” (even though that nice person was collaborating in a sincere attempt to deny the humanity of non-whites), who should be able to say anything at all, uncriticized, as long as no voices were raised. I can’t help but feel that can only happen in a culture or subculture that has a distorted sense of what’s “good” behavior.

Florian: I suppose I can agree with Americans always trying to be super nice to people. But I always saw that as something positive. In Germany people can be rather rude and standoffish, that stereotype of all work and no play and so forth. If I think about the stereotypical southern belle smiling politely while slaves work in the fields, yes that is morally wrong.